The head of the soft drinks industry this week launched a blistering attack on health campaigners in the war on sugar, accusing them of a politically motivated campaign to safeguard their taxpayer funding.

Gavin Partington, director general of the British Soft Drinks Association, spoke out after the latest bombshell report from the DH-commissioned Policy Innovation Research Unit (PIRU). The report claimed the Responsibility Deal would not succeed in tackling obesity, and was deliberately timed to come out on the day of the general election.

Partington, backed by soft drinks giants including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Lucozade, launched a strong defence of the Deal’s achievements, saying it had inspired companies to take “major steps” to reduce sugar.

He revealed new figures from Kantar, which showed that from 2012 to 2015 the soft drinks category had seen a reduction in calories of more than 7%, with sugar content down more than 8%.

Speaking at the Zenith Soft Drinks Conference, in London on Thursday, Partington said: “Some of our critics justify their attacks on soft drinks by claiming sugar is the new tobacco. We should not tolerate this nonsense. Sugar is not the new tobacco and it is utterly wrong and malicious to attack soft drinks in those terms.”

He also turned his fire on experts on the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which will next month release a report expected to call for recommended sugar intakes to be slashed in half.

“We have challenged the link SACN claimed between sugar-sweetened beverages and Type 2 diabetes,” he said. “We did so on the simple basis that the primary evidence relied on for that claim did not meet SACN’s own stated criteria for evidence inclusion. I am afraid it bears all the hallmarks of what’s known as policy-based evidence rather than policy formed on the basis of the best available evidence.”

The health lobby was driven by an agenda of opposition to cuts in the NHS. “They are seeking to protect the funding of the system that pays them a living and they are ready to target the food and drink industry in order to protect their own interests,” he said.

The PIRU study, carried out by researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, assessed the effectiveness of retailer and supplier voluntary pledges across front-of-pack labelling, salt, calorie and satfat reduction, moves to increase fruit & veg consumption, and a reduction of satfats.

It claimed up to two thirds of interventions reported by companies were already being carried out regardless of the Deal and slammed the quality of reporting on progress in the pledges. “Though reformulation was most commonly listed in the delivery plans, the act of signing up to the RD motivated few organisations to implement such interventions,” the report stated. “Though RD partners claim that considerable sugar reduction has occurred under their calorie reduction pledge, the current progress reports do not substantiate these claims,” it added.

PIRU urged the government to instead turn to policies including taxation and new restrictions on marketing of unhealthy products.

…as industry prepares for Deal replacement talks

Talks on a replacement for the Responsibility Deal could begin within weeks, The Grocer understands.

With a Conservative majority, industry leaders said they were confident ministers would favour the continuation of a voluntary initiative on public health.

However, senior industry figures said they expected it to be renamed and for the existing reporting procedure, seen as a failure by the industry and the health lobby, to be ditched. Instead, talks are likely to focus on a new, much more tightly defined framework for targets on areas such as sugar reduction.

The BRC said it would only agree to new voluntary measures if the government agreed to a new framework, which included better reporting and clearer health outcome targets.

One supplier boss said he had been led to expect talks “in the early summer”. “The future for the Deal looks very murky,” he said. “I expect the government to be quite tough on the need for a new initiative on sugar and obesity but the Conservatives have shown they favour a voluntary approach.”

Another industry leader closely involved with the Deal said: “The Responsibility Deal is dead. It’s a doomed brand. We had been preparing the ground for a more draconian public health policy if there were a Labour-led government but the fact the Conservatives have a majority would suggest the government is not going to suddenly unleash a wave of regulation.”

This week, the DH posted a message on the Deal website reading: ‘This content was published under the 2010 to 2015 coalition government.’